Pennsylvania state Treasurer Rob McCord made a bold move, ferociously attacking campaign front-runne, Tom Wolf. In his attempt to take Wolf down in a hurry with a take-no-prisoners television ad, McCord felt some blowback. WHYY’s senior reporter Dave Davies spoke with McCord about the racially charged attack ad.
What are we to make of the controversy over Rob McCord’s racially charged attack ad aimed at Tom Wolf?
Former Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Senator Bob Casey condemned it over the weekend. Rendell said it was the kind of spot that makes him “ashamed” to be associated with politics.
McCord appeared with his African-American wife, Leigh Jackson, to respond, saying the issue was “very personal” to him. McCord said the issue of race is still very much with us, playing a viciously racist and profane voicemail about him and Jackson to make his point.”
Is the attack fair?
If McCord’s attack ad about Wolf’s association with former York Mayor Charlie Robertson were fair, it might be the first in the history of modern campaigns.
Every negative ad tells a selective story. In this one, an announcer says Wolf chaired the campaign of a man arrested for a race riot that left a black woman dead, and that he stood with this admitted racist accused of first-degree murder, one who handed out ammunition and shouted “white power. “
The ad doesn’t say that Wolf’s association with Robertson was 13 years ago, that the riot happened 45 years ago, that Robertson admitted he’d been a racist then but had changed his views, or that Robertson denied handing out ammunition and was acquitted by a jury.
Robertson was surely a loathsome character in 1969. A relevant question is what kind of person he was in 2001, when he was a two-term mayor running for re-election and prosecutors reopened the investigation of the 1969 riot. Wolf, who was chair of Robertson’s re-election campaign, says he’d worked with Robertson on an economic development organization.
There are plenty of examples in modern history of reconciliation between perpetrators and victims of ethic and racial violence, many stories of oppressors having true changes of heart. I haven’t seen enough in press accounts to know much about Robertson’s character or his views in 2001. I didn’t see stories of him being a champion of diversity and inclusion.
There’s also the question of to what extent Wolf “stood with” Robertson. Days after Robertson had won the 2001 Democratic mayoral primary and was arrested on the murder charge, a press account described Wolf as saying he would remain chairman of his re-election campaign if Robertson wanted him to.
Robertson was out of the race within a week, and an account in Sunday’s Inquirer says Wolf played a role in getting Robertson out. So it’s not as if Wolf called a news conference with his arms around Robertson. But he didn’t take the opportunity to distance himself either.
A question of judgment and politics
McCord says he’s not calling Wolf a racist, but pointing out that when Robertson was charged with murder, Wolf faced a “gut check moment” and made the wrong call. He compares Wolf’s failure in two days to “step away from a racist” to the NBA’s prompt decision to ban Donald Sterling for his racist comments.
In other words, McCord says, it’s about Wolf’s executive judgment, especially on the critically important issue of race.
Of course that’s not what the ad says. It pretty much equates Wolf with Bull Connors.
And it’s hard to take seriously the idea that McCord wants to start a conversation about race when the timing and ferocity of the ad are so consistent with the political imperatives of the moment: McCord needs to take the campaign’s front-runner down in a hurry, and you do with that take-no-prisoners television.
I get McCord’s frustration. Wolf charges into the race with $10 million, nearly half of it borrowed, and builds a big lead. If you truly believe you’re the best guy for the state, and the only way to win is to take Wolf down in the last three weeks, you’re faced with some tough choices. Politics ain’t beanbag.
One person I spoke with who knows state politics told me that what the Wolf-Robertson episode shows, along with his support for a former state lawmaker convicted of corruption, is that Tom is a “good guy” whose impulse is not to abandon his friends.
“Tom is going to get chewed up in Harrisburg” if he brings that outlook to the governor’s office, this person said. Food for thought, I suppose.
A related question is whether Wolf will respond to the attack ads by McCord and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz with negative spots aimed at them. Classical political strategy says when you’re attacked, you respond in kind. Nobody gets a free shot.
So far, Wolf has responded with defensive ads, featuring supporters and employees of his business telling his side of the story. His campaign has the money for tracking polls, which should show how effective the attacks against him are.
If his numbers dive, I’m sure his team will advise him to go after McCord and Schwartz with some stink bombs of his own. My guess is they’re coming.
One disclosure: McCord’s wife, Leigh Jackson, was a colleague of mine years ago at the Philadelphia Daily News.